Whenever this Celtics season comes to an end — whether it’s in mid-April, early-May or at some insanely unlikely later date — just about every newspaper, website, blog, and/or Twitter account associated with this team will publish a superlative-themed Year In Review. You know, the best of this. The worst of that. The highlights and lowlights of however it all plays out. If you’re lucky, it might even be a slideshow. And while at this point, only seven games in, most guesses as to what those superlatives will be will miss more flagrantly than your average Dwight Howard free throw, there are exceptions. And Saturday night was one of them.
You know what happened. The Celtics beat the Heat. The two-time defending champs. On the road. On the second night of a back-to-back. After trailing by four points with less than five seconds left, and by two points with less than a second left. They won it on a fade away, baseline, buzzer-beating Jeff Green three-pointer, directly in LeBron James’ mug; the result of a flurry of late-game heroics and a multi-layered inbounds play that was run — save for the six-count provided by the ref — to perfection.
It was a game the Celtics entered as 13.5-point underdogs. The largest spread they’ve faced since March 16, 2007 — back when Kelly Olynyk was 15 years old, Brad Stevens was all of 30 and only four of the 11 players who saw the floor for Boston on Saturday were even in the NBA. If you had (hypothetically, of course) bet $100 on the Celtics to beat Miami, you’d be sitting at your desk right now with an extra $900 in your bank account. Or maybe you would’ve blown it all yesterday on the Colts and 49ers. I don’t know. Either way, Saturday was a net positive. It was a night where these Celtics became THE Celtics again. The team that you love and have loved. A team that, talent be damned, will represent this city the very best it can.
Sure, there’s probably a slight buzz kill attached to the reality of what the loss actually meant to Miami and how quickly they’ll brush it off on the way to bigger and better things. After all, it wasn’t so long ago — months, really — when everything the Heat did and said and felt fueled the Celtics existence. Their failure was Boston’s success, and vice versa. But these days, Boston’s not as important to Miami; Miami’s not as important to Boston. Nothing outside of the Celtics locker room is. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, Boston’s essentially on an NBA island. Working and experimenting in relative darkness, waiting for their opportunity to get back on the marquee. Until then, the only wins and losses that matter are their own. They care about the rest of the league about as much as the rest of the league currently cares about them. Which is not much. Check the national TV schedule. Honestly, if the NBA is the United States, the 2013-2014 Celtics might as well be Guam. Who cares what’s going on in Guam?
Well, the people of Guam (the Guamese?) care. So, let’s take a closer look . . .
The Celtics have won three straight games to climb from the ranks of the last remaining winless teams into the Eastern Conference playoff field. They might be 3-4, but they’ve held a fourth-quarter lead in all seven of their games. And over the course of those seven games, there have quite a few positive developments.
For one, there’s the realization (or acceptance?) that Avery Bradley is not a point guard. It’s not a coincidence that Boston’s three-game winning streak began when Brad Stevens moved Bradley back to his natural position and handed point guard duties to (eek!) Jordan Crawford and undrafted rookie Phil Pressey. Pressey played a total of four minutes over the Celtics first four games, but has averaged 17.5 a pop over the last three. He hasn’t scored all that much (10 points, total) or shot very well from the field (24 percent), but that doesn’t matter as much as this: He’s an actual point guard. A natural point guard. The first natural point guard not named Rajon Rondo that Danny Ainge has employed since 75-year-old Sam Cassell. Pressey knows how to run a break, how to control the tempo, he can get out into space and make things happen. And he has these last three games. We all know that NBA +/- can be a deceiving stat, but Pressey’s +13 does his performance justice. And he should only get more comfortable and confident as his NBA career advances beyond two weeks.
Speaking of comfortable and confident, Bradley has been just that since moving back to his natural position, and has played a key role in these last three wins. For a deeper break down, check out Chris Forsberg’s column over at ESPN, but here’s a quick excerpt that sums it up nicely:
It's impossible to overstate the positive impact that moving Bradley off the ball has created. Over Boston's first four games (all losses), the team owned an offensive rating of a measly 86.7 when Bradley was on the court (it ballooned to 105.4 when he was on the bench). Bradley was minus-22 for that stretch while turning the ball over 3.8 times per game.
Since inserting Crawford into the starting lineup, the Celtics have won three straight and Boston's offensive rating has climbed to 101.6 when Bradley is on the floor (and dipped to 100.3 when he's off). Bradley is averaging only 1.3 turnovers per game in that span and his field goal percentage is up eight percent.
With the backcourt in better shape, the frontcourt has benefited accordingly. Gerald Wallace continues to play well enough to offset his constant bitching. The Celtics don’t beat Miami without him. While Wallace has been the team’s most vocal leader (or presence), Brandon Bass has been the consummate pro. The understated MVP of the first seven games. Kris Humphries is finally getting some playing time -- much needed too, if the Celtics actually care about winning. Jared Sullinger is presumably in better shape and starting to see more minutes; he’s the most dynamic and effective post player when he’s out there, and will be more and more often as the season progresses. Kelly Olynyk cracked the starting line-up and will get more comfortable with time. Vitor Faverani lost his spot, but has handled it better than anyone could ask. He’s happy to be coming off the bench! And then there’s Jeff Green.
I’m not going to get too crazy about what he’s done so far, because we’ve seen this all before. We know that he can do this. Sustaining it is the issue. That said, at the very least, Green’s provided many reasons to be optimistic.
But the question, as it pertains to Green and “the Green” in general is obviously: Where do they go from here? Will today’s optimism translate into prolonged success?
You might not want to file this under #hottakes, but my answer is “I don’t know.” In terms of their overall record, I’m not sure anyone really knows what lies ahead for the Celtics. We do know that they have players who want to win, and will work their asses off to do so, especially on 'D' (they’re currently a Top 10 defense). That they have a coach who will get the best out of those players and who’s earning more and more respect with every passing game.
Gun to my head, I don’t think they can keep this up. I think consistency on offense will be an issue, even when/if Rondo returns. I know that size will be an issue. That’s one facet of the game where Miami literally falls short. At the end of the day, my guess is that we’ll see considerably more losses than wins from the Celtics, and that eventually, we’ll see Tommy Heinsohn sitting among the other lottery reps at halftime of some random Conference Finals game, collectively holding out hope that the ping pong balls deliver Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle to Boston.
And that’s OK. I think that’s where Boston needs to be. Ideally, that’s where they will be. I think it’s possible to not root for losses while still accepting that losses are to this team’s benefit. It’s like every June in Boston, when it rains for weeks at a time. No one wants that. No one’s rooting for rain. But we know it’s necessary. That it leads to brighter and healthier tomorrow.
But even if there are an abundance of losses, there will be wins.
The worst team in NBA history won nine games. The worst team in Celtics history won 15 games. This year’s team is better than both those teams. They’ll win more than those teams. And cursing every win is like cursing every June rain drop. There’s literally no point. In the Celtics' case, the least you can do is sit back and enjoy the games they do win. Appreciate the effort. Embrace this process. It will make the end of the road that much sweeter.
Ultimately, we really won’t know where this team is headed until they get there. You won’t have a full grasp of what this season was all about until you’re begrudgingly clicking through that Year In Review slideshow and reliving the craziness of the next six months.
But one thing I guarantee, regardless of anything else that happens, is that when you get to the story of the “Best Game of the Year” you’ll be looking at a recap of Saturday night in Miami.
For this season, or any season, it doesn’t get any better than that.
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